Hey ho it is time for me to haul a giant tote bag of beautiful and enticing books for the kids on your gift list down to Maryland's NPR station (WYPR 88.1 FM) and let Maryland Morning's Tom Hall pick a few he'd like me to talk about! Unfortunately, that segment got lost in the scheduling shuffle this year, so I'll have to make do with a list on Pink Me. NOT a hardship - on the Internet, I have unlimited air time!
So here are the books I am sticking in my Santa sack:
I’d love to call these “holiday” gift ideas, but the fact is, Hannukah gift purchasing is all but DONE. I missed that Galilean fishing vessel. So unless you give gifts for Kwanzaa or Yule (God Jul to you Dances With Chickens!), at this point, it’s all about Christmas. So what is the fat man going to bring the kids you love?
I always advocate nonfiction as gift books. I love a book that a kid can browse and enjoy for years, or leave in the bathroom for those moments when you just want to read a little something. I also am a big fan of the dynamic that is created when a kid has learned a Phascinating Phact and wants to show it off for the family.
There's more than one big beautiful animal encyclopedia out this season, but for my money the best one comes from National Geographic (National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia: 2,500 Animals with Photos, Maps, and More!, National Geographic; Gr 2-6). The pictures are amazing, of course, but the layout is comprehensible, which is often a problem with these big books of facts aimed at children. The Smithsonian version (Super Nature Encyclopedia, DK 2012), for example, has little panels that sort of rate each animal like a video game character. Put that together with dark-colored backgrounds, and you have a book that is visually exciting, but rather difficult to read.
This book also includes little anecdotes about animal encounters by scientists working in the field. This you-are-there aspect is something that I look for in children’s nonfiction – kids like to know “this actually happened.” AND it's bound securely. It's a pet peeve of mine, these big heavy books with wimpy hinges that split the first time the book falls off a table.
A very different animal book is Hélène Rajcak and Damien Laverdunt’s Small and Tall Tales of Extinct Animals (Gecko, 2012; Gr 3-9). It’s an oversize book that pulls readers into stories of the dodo, Steller’s sea cow, and the impractical-looking Irish elk. Each spread features a funky comic on one page and a large, captioned drawing with a paragraph of description and history on the other.
You might also look for an inspiring biography for the kid on your list. I picked a biography of soccer player Hope Solo (Hope Solo: My Story (Young Readers' Edition), Harper Collins Children, 2012; Gr 5-9). In addition to being a role model for girl athletes, Hope Solo has a prickly personality that has caused her problems with her teammates and others, and she is very forthright in this book about how she has messed up and then repaired those relationships.
Speaking of sports, there’s always a slew of glossy sports books this time of year. I brought Sports Illustrated Kids Big Book of Why Sports Edition (Sports Illustrated, 2012; Gr 3-6) because I like its format: there are four sections of facts and trivia, and each section is capped with a quiz. Kids are encouraged to challenge the adult sports expert in their life to take the quiz with them and compare results—making the book itself something of a game. I also like that when this book says “sports” it includes sports like gymnastics, lacrosse, and skateboarding – not just big-league team sports. Hell, there's even a question about curling.
Here is a thing that I find in short supply - guides to decent behavior. I would like to see a book called How to Be a Good Person Whom Everyone Likes Having Around. It would cover topics like "What is a funny joke and what is being a dick," and "It is not cheating to say you were wrong."
The trick, of course, is how to write that book without seeming lecture-y and negative. One book that succeeds is How to Survive Anything: Shark Attack, Lightning, Embarrassing Parents, Pop Quizzes, and Other Perilous Situations (National Geographic, 2011; Gr 4-9) by Rachel Buchholz, illustrated by Chris Philpot, which not only gives kids valuable advice on how to deal with some of the predictable ticklish situations a kid might find herself in, but is hilarious. Tween readers will get realistic guidance on how to apologize, stay safe online, and find water on a desert island. Snappy design and hip, what-not-to-do illustrations hook readers.
Whoops and I almost forgot to praise the National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar! (image at the top of this section). National Geo is having a MAGNIFICENT year this year, with many popular, snappy titles making it to the top of everyone's nonfiction lists. This poetry book is one I'm going to be giving as a gift myself - the poems selected are not all the most familiar, and The. Pictures. Are. Stunning.
There are just a few picture books every year which I single out as keepers.
This year, I must have the Jon Klassen one-two punch of I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick; Gr PreK – adult). These sly stories that rely on visual storytelling and convey their climaxes via inference recall the great subversive classic picture books by the likes of Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer. And I like to think of the second book as "Ceci n'est pas mon chapeau," because of the bowler. And because I am pretentious. But at least I'm honest about it.
Lily Loves (Simply Read Books; Gr PreK – 3) by Kai Luftner is a simple, lovely picture book about a little girl who knows who she is.
Ganesha's Sweet Tooth (Chronicle Books; Gr 1-3) by Emily Haynes, pictures by Sanjay Patel. It’s a cute story adapted from a classic Hindu tale, and I adore the look of this book, with art by a Pixar artist.
The Goldilocks Variations: A Pop-up Book by Allan Ahlberg (Candlewick; Gr 1-6). Several variations on the Goldilocks story, including one featuring aliens and one that includes a mini-book within the book. As I noted in my review, the sliders and pop-ups are witty and durable. So much fun to share!
The Time-Traveling Fashionista (Poppy; Gr 4-9) by Bianca Turetsky. Historical fiction with a fabulous focus on fashionable frocks.
And a few boxed sets - think of them as investment property in your kid's imagination.The Wrinkle in Time Quintet Boxed Set (Square Fish; Gr 4-adult). New paperback editions of Madeline L’Engle’s classic books about the Murry and O’Keefe families.
Dive into exciting Egyptian mythology adventure with the The Kane Chronicles Hardcover Boxed Set. Author Rick Riordan also writes the Percy Jackson books and the Olympians series.
The Mysterious Benedict Society Complete Collection is now available, the series having have reached its conclusion. This series, about a group of smart kids, is popular with both boys and girls.
Or maybe it’s time to buy land in Middle Earth. J.R.R. Tolkien 4-Book Boxed Set (Del Rey Books). There’s a brand-new edition available, timed to coincide with the release of The Hobbit.
Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books; Gr 5-adult). Exciting sci-fi that appeals to both boys and girls.
The Matched trilogy by Ally Condie (Dutton Juvenile, Gr 6-adult). In the future, you do not choose who you love. Very popular with girls.
The John Green Box Set (Dutton; Gr 7-12) . Four books by this generation’s nerdfighter supreme: Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska, and The Fault in Our Stars. Green’s relatable characters always pack an emotional punch even while you’re laughing your head off at the dialogue and situations. And of course, it's autographed, because John Green WORKS FOR IT.
If you’re looking for a special book just for the season – a read-aloud, or a fancy beautiful book to share Christmas Eve, I have a few candidates.
Twelve Kinds of Ice by Barbara Obed, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock (Houghton Mifflin; Gr 3-adult) is a slender book to read aloud as a family chapter by chapter every winter. It’s not a story per se, but a description of the kinds of ice that occur every winter on the narrator’s family farm. Celebrate language and nature with this lovely little item.
I can’t wait to get my hands on The Fairy-Tale Princess: Seven Classic Stories from the Enchanted Forest (Thames and Hudson; Gr PreK-adult), by Wendy Jones. This book is illustrated with beautiful, delicate, magical, cut-paper sculptures by Su Blackwell.
I also like the look of Chronicle’s new edition of The Nutcracker (The Nutcracker: A Magic Theater Book, Chronicle Books; Grades PreK-3). The text is by Geraldine McCaughrean, who is a very well-respected author of literate, thoughtful books that are also very exciting and interesting to read. The book is not a pop-up per se – there are no sculptural elements that will tear or break – but an ingenious mechanism makes characters “step onstage” as each page is turned.
The classic Peanuts comics are ready to be discovered by a new generation, with new reprints in a number of formats. Charlie Brown's Christmas Stocking (Fantagraphics; Gr 3-adult) is a little book of two Peanuts side projects that Charles M. Schulz did in the early 1960’s – one is a series of one-page observations and jokes about the holiday, and the other is a story about Lucy and Linus explaining Christmas to Snoopy. It’s printed on very nice paper with a good binding – it’s a nice book to have in the hand, and I could see it coming out every Christmas as a quirky little treasure.
And now, as they say, for something completely different. The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids (Quirk Books; Gr 3-adult) tells the Nativity story entirely in LEGO. This same creator, Brendan Powell Smith, has also made a full Old Testament and New Testament in LEGO (see my review here), but those are not necessarily appropriate for kids. Even in this book there’s a tableau of soldiers murdering male babies that might make some parents go, “HMMM.”